- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

PARIS — Protesters yesterday crippled France with massive demonstrations and a national strike, but failed to budge Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin from his steadfast defense of an unpopular new jobs law.

Chanting slogans and brandishing banners, hundreds of thousands of mainly young people spilled into the streets of Paris and other cities, denouncing the new law that makes it easier to hire and fire young workers.

The strikes disrupted transportation services as teachers and private-sector employees joined the walkouts. The Eiffel Tower was closed for fear of violence, and the U.S. State Department warned Americans to be wary of city crowds.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up scattered incidents of rock and bottle throwing last night. Police made 787 arrests around the country — 488 of them in Paris — National Police Chief Michel Gaudin told the Associated Press. Injuries in the capital were tallied at 46 demonstrators and nine police officers.

The demonstrations were the latest — and largest — expression of a fury that has spread from university campuses to Main Street France.

Mr. de Villepin issued a fresh call for political dialogue — which was rejected outright by student and labor unions — but showed no sign of backing down from the law, which calculates that companies will hire more young workers if they have more flexibility to fire them once they are on staff.

“The republic is not about preconditions,” he said in the National Assembly. “It’s not about ultimatums.”

However, Mr. de Villepin’s top conservative rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed yesterday that the law be suspended while negotiations with the unions continue. The Constitutional Council is expected to rule tomorrow on its legality.

“I think we’re heading toward some sort of compromise that won’t be ideal, but will allow both sides to retain something,” said Jerome Fourquet, studies director at the IFOP polling agency in Paris. “At the end, the law will be substantially changed.”

Mr. de Villepin, who bulldozed the jobs law through parliament earlier this month, argues that the changes will slice youth unemployment, now at 23 percent. But critics argue it simply increases job insecurity by allowing businesses to fire young, first-time workers for any or no reason during their first two years of employment.

Several recent polls show a solid majority in all age groups oppose the legislation in its current form — a sentiment echoed among the boisterous crowd that marched through Paris on a raw afternoon yesterday.

“I’ve held precarious jobs for the last 20 years,” said 40-year-old educator Hishem Larach. “I don’t want my children to end up with the same problems.”

At universities like Paris 13, located in the grim suburb of Villetaneuse, there is little sign that student opposition to the law is waning. Banners denouncing the jobs law drape the cavernous campus center, along with flyers promoting yesterday’s general strike.

“The government is going to have to repeal the law,” said 20-year-old engineering student Abdoulaye Cisse, “because the students are not going to stop demonstrating.”

Paris 13 has remained open while other schools are blockaded and shuttered, in part because its mainly immigrant, working-class students often juggle jobs and cannot make up study time lost through protests.

But its president, Alain Neuman, said: “I sense a real despair among my students. They’re worried about the future.”

Fear of the future is a continuing theme in France these days, particularly among the young. Nearly half the youths surveyed in an Ipsos poll last fall equated globalization with fear. Yet critics say France cannot afford to keep its generous social benefits and remain competitive. The economy is sluggish and unemployment hovers near 10 percent.

“We have privileges in our society we can’t afford any more,” said Julien Gomez, a history professor at Paris 13, who concedes he is in the minority on campus who support the jobs law. “Having a job for life is a privilege. People need to realize they have responsibilities.”

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